Karen’s Story- “A ticking time bomb.”
“A ticking time bomb.”
That’s what I thought every time I had to schedule an annual mammogram or bi-yearly breast exam and ultrasound. I was at high risk for developing breast cancer—my mother was diagnosed with the disease at 44 and died when she was only 50. In my mind, it wasn’t a matter of if I developed the disease, just when. The constant screening was excruciating. Would this be the year the radiologist found something?
I tried counseling and anti-anxiety drugs, and switched mammogram facilities several times to get my fear under control, but nothing worked. Even testing negative for the BRCA gene failed to give me any peace.
Finally, after a scary mammogram in May 2011, I decided enough was enough. At my next checkup, I told my breast surgeon,Dr. William Barber at Piedmont Hospital, that I wanted to have a prophylactic mastectomy. Thankfully, Dr. Barber didn’t try to talk me out of it as other surgeons had done in the past. He understood that my fear of getting breast cancer was as real to me as the disease itself.
Next I met with Dr. Diane Alexander to discuss breast reconstruction. We talked extensively about my family history, paralyzing anxiety, and desire to take control of my health. After a quick examination, she recommended breast reconstruction using tissue expanders, since I was small-framed. With a plan of action now in place, both surgeons went to bat for me, convincing my insurance company to cover the procedures.
In early August, I received the news I’d been waiting for all summer—the surgery was approved and scheduled for Monday, Sept. 19, at 7:30 a.m. I was nervous but ready to move on with my life. I had two young kids, three incredible stepchildren, and a supportive husband. Enough with the mammograms and ultrasounds!
The day before my surgery, I played tag with my kids, hung out with my best friend, and reassured my sister, only 10 months younger than me, that I was 100 percent sure of my decision. On the morning of September 19th, I woke up before dawn, took a shower, and looked at my unscarred body for a final time. I didn’t feel sad, just ready to get rid of “the enemies.” Before leaving the house, I kissed my sleeping babies. Their sweet faces gave me all the courage I needed.
It was still dark when we pulled into the parking lot at Piedmont Hospital. As one of the first cases that day, I was quickly taken to pre-op where a small army of professionals prepared me for surgery. Both Dr. Barber and Dr. Alexander stopped by to say “hello” and to put me at ease. Dr. Alexander used a pen to mark where she wanted Dr. Barber to make the incisions. After he removed my breast tissue and nipples – saving as much skin as possible – Dr. Alexander would step in to the place tissue expanders under my chest muscles, creating a pocket where the implants would eventually go.
Yes, I was uneasy as I was wheeled into the operating room, but I knew this was the beginning of the end of my mental battle with breast cancer. Before the anesthesiologist put me under, I said a silent prayer to my mother. She had died almost exactly 20 years earlier. It was time to put the nightmare of her death behind me and grieve for her without fear.
Less than three hours later, I woke up in the recovery room. The worst was over. I remember Dr. Barber stopping by to tell me he hadn’t seen anything suspicious-looking in my breasts (I’d been asking for him, apparently!). He reassured me that the pathologist would examine my breast tissue “with a fine-toothed comb.”
My two days in the hospital passed in a blur of pain meds, antibiotics, muscle relaxers and an anti-nausea drip. I was not in pain—just uncomfortable from the tissue expanders that were doing their job, stretching my skin and muscles. I had drainage tubes on both sides and my chest was taped up. I clearly remember being pleased at my appearance in the surgical bra —I wasn’t “flat.” Dr. Alexander had added a little saline to the expanders during surgery to get the process started. No one would ever know from looking at me that I’d just had my breasts removed.
Once at home, my recovery progressed quickly. I never took any pain medication, and I avoided muscle relaxers because they made me sleepy. On Thursday after the surgery, Dr. Barber’s nurse called to tell me the pathology reports were all normal. A week after the surgery, we went out to dinner to celebrate my stepdaughter’s 18th birthday. I was sore and uncomfortable from the tissue expanders (they’re hard) but felt fine. The worst part was having drainage tubes hang out of my sides. Emptying them grossed me out, and they constantly pulled at my skin. One came out after just 10 days; the other stayed in for five weeks!
Three weeks after surgery, I had my first tissue expander “fill-up” to stretch the skin and muscles. My eyes bugled the first time I saw the huge needle filled with saline, but the injection didn’t hurt; my chest area was, and remains, pretty numb. I was a little sore after each fill-up but mostly I just longed for the expanders to come out. They felt as hard as bowling balls under my skin.
Finally, exactly three months after the mastectomy, I had the replacement surgery during which Dr. Alexander removed the expanders and put in the implants. It was done on as out-patient procedure, and I was home by dinner time.
My new boobs are bigger than the originals and look remarkably normal. I’m still adjusting to being chestier than I was before, and sometimes the implants are a little uncomfortable. However, I’ve learned that wearing a good support bra helps keep things “locked and loaded.” I still want Dr. Alexander to plop in some fake nipples but that’s a few months down the road.
At one of my fill-up appointments, I was complaining to Dr. Alexander about being uncomfortable. She asked in her direct way if I had any regrets. My answer was an emphatic “no way!” My only regret was that I waited so long. I will forever be grateful to Dr. Barber and Dr. Alexander for taking my concerns seriously; they enabled me to finally embrace life, not be scared of it.
When I look at my precious children these days, I’m at peace knowing I’ve done everything in my power to ensure they’ll never lose their mother to breast cancer as I did mine.